Recipe For A Fall Feast
"The roses have revived, sloughed off the blights of summer and are decking themselves in a last hurrah of flowers."
Like the first really mild day in spring, the first chilly morning in fall feels like a sharp wake-up call to the gardener, just as it is for the plants in the garden. It is rather more significant to them, of course. The thermometer check this morning shows a bracing 59 (F) at 8 o‘clock, the first reading of the 50s since last spring. The equinox passed me by this year without my even noticing it, although as a rule I tend to be almost druidically attentive to the solstices and the equinoxes, like an ancient astronomer at Stonehenge. I think most gardeners are; these four important days are the fulcrum points upon which the garden heaves and revolves, and we are alive in special ways to the rhythms and geophysical commands that order it.
In this part of the Mid-Atlantic, the heat and light begin to drain swiftly out of the northern hemisphere just at the inflection point of the equinox. Early September is deliciously mild; the last week of the month is rather sharp, as if it belongs more to October than to September. The great orb goes on spinning in its appointed groove, just as it was set to do billions of years ago, and yet each of the four turning points of the year still fill us with awe and wonder as they fill the garden with change and excitement.
And the sharper weather seems to be smartening up the garden quite a bit. The roses have revived, sloughed off the blights of summer and are decking themselves in a last hurrah of flowers. The crape myrtles are still going strong and are joined now by the Hydrangea paniculata, and what a felicitous combination this is. Wouldn’t it be great to have so much land (and money) that you could have a small plantation of these myrtles with their handsome fastigiate stems, sparsely under-planted with these boldly flowering white hydrangeas, just for the fun of having a broad floral glade to walk through at this time of year?
All of the strong summer performers tend to revive a bit at this time of year: the cannas go all out now, especially if you keep them deadheaded, and the dahlias and knockout roses all seem to get their second wind. The coleus are enormous now, with their psychedelic, Peter Max foliage and their long flowering stalks, making them look like very exotic cousins of the basil tribe, which they are, and so are spearmint and thyme for that matter. We are overgrown with basil and it will soon have to go into the kitchen to become the winter’s pesto, but we still have a few weeks before that big job must be tackled, before frost blackens the basil plants.
And, of course, right behind them are coming the families of profuse fall bloomers: sedums, asters, mums, helianthus, autumn crocuses, anemones, and on and on. Endless interest. It all gives the garden a rather touching and almost desperate fin de siècle kind of air, like the forced gaiety of New Year’s Eve on an old-fashioned cruise ship or prom night at the local high school. The yews are putting on their brilliant red, semi-hollow berries now, like tiny Christmas ornaments on dark and bristling Christmas trees, and the golden rain tree — a sentimental favorite of mine since I was a boy — is decked out with thousands of seed pods that look like tiny, swinging paper lanterns with hard black seeds in them.
Vegetable gardens are bursting at this time of year with their great freight of cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, squash and, of course, pumpkins. I never have to buy produce in this season because co-workers who are overwhelmed with this bounty bring bags and bags of the stuff to the office to give away, bless their kind hearts. Certainly I would never grow these vegetables, though many people love to. I am by no means a snob about these plants. Rather the reverse. I quite understand why people like to grow them; they are most impressive and wonderful creatures and they seem always to be a success.
1 bulb of garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
2½ to 3 lbs. of squash (acorn, butternut, spaghetti)
5 large red peppers, quartered and seeded
8 large shallots, peeled and quartered
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup maple syrup
Preheat oven to 350. Lightly coat a large baking dish with olive oil. (Yes, peeling garlic cloves is a very tedious job in the kitchen, but unless you propose to win the lottery and then hire a personal garlic peeler, this is what you have to do. And no, diced garlic from a jar is not just as good, and please don’t ask that again.) Cut the squash into quarters lengthwise and scrape the seeds away, or you may prefer to cut them smaller, into 2-inch squares. You can also use edible pumpkin here, though not the jack o’ lantern kind. I like butternut squash best for this recipe.
Place the squash and peppers in a large baking dish, skin-side down, then pack in all the shallot pieces and garlic cloves. Mix the remaining six ingredients in a saucepan over a low heat until combined, then drizzle this aromatic mixture over the vegetables and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until the juices are caramelized. Serves 8.